For people who need oxygen therapy, flying on a commercial airline can be costly and complicated.
They need to line up supplies of supplemental oxygen for each step of their trip, and the cost to them can sometimes exceed the price of a plane ticket. Current federal rules prevent passengers from taking their own oxygen cylinders aboard U.S. domestic flights, for safety reasons.
A proposed federal rule change would allow Amherst-based AirSep Corp.'s portable devices aboard commercial flights, making flying more convenient for people who need oxygen therapy while expanding the market for AirSep's devices.
AirSep's portable oxygen concentrator, called the LifeStyle, has been on the market for more than two years, but passengers cannot take it aboard domestic flights.
U.S. airlines vary in their policies about providing supplemental oxygen aboard planes. Some don't make it available, while others provide it for a fee and typically require advance notice.
Advocates of the federal rule change note that passengers have to pay for an oxygen supply for each leg of their trip, which can make flying too expensive for some people.
Plus, advocates say, passengers need to make arrangements for oxygen to be supplied at each step, creating logistical hassles. Layovers and flight cancellations add to the complexity.
Airlines also have to get involved in the planning and might even need to set aside seats to hold passengers' tanks on longer flights.
"It's very difficult for the passengers and very difficult for the airlines," said Joseph Priest, AirSep's president and chief operating officer.
The proposed rule change would broaden the market for its portable LifeStyle, Priest said. He declined to say how many of the portable units AirSep has sold; in a document submitted to federal officials in August, AirSep said it had sold "thousands" of the devices in the past two years.
AirSep sells the portable units, which weigh less than 10 pounds, through home health care companies for about $5,000. Smaller versions of AirSep's units are in development.
AirSep employs about 330 people and generates about $100 million in annual revenues, Priest said. Including its larger, stationary oxygen concentrators, AirSep has sold about 1 million units in the past 18 years, the company told federal regulators.
Supporters of the proposed rule change, including some U.S. senators, say it would give people affected by it more freedom to travel.
About 1 million people in the United States require supplementary oxygen in order to fly, said Phillip Porte, executive director of the National Home Oxygen Patients Association. But because flying is so complex under the current restrictions, some have given up on traveling by plane, he said.
The rules are strict because of safety concerns about carrying devices such as high-pressure oxygen cylinders on aircraft.
AirSep has sought an exemption because its portable device operates by separating oxygen from nitrogen and other gases in room air, and then delivering the oxygen to the user. The device runs on batteries, an adapter that plugs into an outlet or even a car's cigarette lighter.
An AirSep competitor, Inogen, is seeking an exemption for its own portable concentrator, called the One, for use aboard aircraft, said Daryl Risinger, vice president of marketing for the California-based company. Inogen is awaiting word from federal officials on that approval.
While the rule change wouldn't force airlines to allow approved portable units aboard, both AirSep and Inogen say the airlines they have talked to would embrace it.
"Every communication we have had is that the airlines are very open to doing this," Risinger said.
Airlines could become customers and buy portable devices for use on their planes. Priest said home health care companies might also lease the devices to travelers who need a portable option for a trip.